Bettina Schmidt | The Contentious Field of Religious Experience

Professor Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales, Trinity St. David) gives her opening keynote presentation from our Contemporary Religion in Historial Perspective conference on the 19th Feb, 2018 – “The Contentious Field of the Study of Religious Experience: The Challenging Influence of Rudolf Otto, Andrew Lang and other Founding Fathers.”

Humour, Concealment and Death Mindfulness in Romanian Funerals

By Maria Nita (University of Wales, Trinity St David)

Death in the West vs. Romanian funeral practices

The modern funeral in the West is increasingly a celebration of life, marked by a depletion of ritual. The French historian Philippe Ariès (1974) claimed that in the West a reduction in the ritual associated with death and dying reflected an inability to accept death caused by the progressive growth in the importance of individuality. Thus ‘the death of the other’ – which was expected and accepted in the Middle Ages as a sort of reintegration in the ancestral community – becomes in modern times, according to Ariès, an unbearable occurrence which can no longer be mediated by ritual. In contrast, the Romanian funeral is still heavily dominated by folk customs, despite some studies suggesting a recent decrease in ritual due to various social factors, such as men taking up a more active role in organising funerals, an area largely considered the domain of older women, who act as expert maintainers of these traditions. (Popescu-Simion, 2014) Also in opposition to the Western emphasis on remembering the past by celebrating the life of the deceased, Romanian funerals are defined by a focused attention on the present, on the moment by moment developments of these rites and also, by an intense relational exchange with the dead body itself. I would like to explore here this engagement with the dead body as a sort of ‘death mindfulness’, leading to an identity transition of the deceased.

Mortu’ as a transitional state in Romanian funeral customs

In Romanian funeral customs, ‘the deceased’ is cautiously talked about as mortu’, a Latin-derived word also meaning ‘the dead body’. ‘Mort’ is, of course, the root word of many English words in this connotative field, such as mortuary, mortality or mortify. Family and friends, all dressed in black, sitting around a traditionally open casket coffin for a three day wake will adopt various attitudes towards mortu’ – from wailing at the head of the coffin, when overcome by grief, to quiet and even jolly conversations, whilst reminding each other to observe all the relevant customs. The customs range from smoky ‘ablutions’ of the body, circling the coffin with frankincense three times a day, to protecting oneself from mortu’ and its potentially dangerous, contaminative and unstipulated rapport with the living: ‘you mustn’t turn your back on mortu’ and if you do, find a small speckle on your clothes and put it on the coffin’, ‘we mustn’t let the candles burn out’, ‘you must put a black scarf on top of the main entrance’, and so on. This could be interpreted as a kind of funeral mindfulness – a practice that focusses one’s attention on the present moment. Towards the end of this process, as the body is taken out of the home or chapel and ‘sent on its last journey’, women rush to cover it with flowers and sometimes jewellery, or even makeup, giving it a puppet-like appearance. The transition is now complete and the frequent relational exchanges of the last few days come to an end.

Humour, death and hidden identities

The ambivalent nature of these interactions seems to have, to some extent, a historical basis. Marina Cap-Bun (2012) shows that in Romanian culture we can identify two concomitant attitudes towards mortality: a pious reverence and abstract idealisation of ‘the departed’ – which Cap-Bun claims to be a later Roman influence, and an older indigenous attitude marked by an irreverent and humorous attitude towards death. This latter is embodied by the Merry Săpânța Cemetery in Romania, which, as the name suggests, abounds in funny and rude portrayals of the deceased. This attitude is also present in old funeral games in which mortu’ was the subject of concealment and trickery; in one extreme example the body was tied up with ropes and used as a puppet to startle unassuming visitors. Like with some shamanic practices dealing with disease, illness and death – laughter and mockery seem to become a gate for plural meanings through which a change or transition of identity is mediated. These polysemic funeral customs are also a constant reminder that one is engaging with mortu’, a transitory and ambivalent ‘being’, in a cocoon-like state.  By focussing the attention on the dead body and the present time Romanian funeral rites and customs appear to provide a death mindfulness practice that seems largely forgotten or absent in the West.

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Billy Graham (1918-2018)

By John Maiden.

Billy Graham died today. While he had been out of the public eye for some time, his passing will prompt many historians of religion to assess a remarkable – and remarkably long – religious career. These are brief, general reflections, written quickly, and which will no doubt require further thought. They only scratch the surface of his ministry and impact.

Graham experienced an evangelical conversion in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1934. In the 1940s he felt he was increasingly drawn towards evangelism, and over time developed a nation-wide reputation. His landmark Los Angeles ‘crusade’ in 1949 saw around 350,000 attend meetings over two months. From 1946, through his role with Youth for Christ, an international ministry also emerged. In 1954 he was invited to lead the Greater London Crusade. While the idea of a resurgence in British religiosity in the 1950s is contested amongst historians, his visits, followed the next year by evangelistic missions in London and Glasgow, were defining moments in post-war British Christianity. These visits also opened access to Britain’s Commonwealth networks: he toured India from 1956, Australia and New Zealand from 1959, and various African nations from 1960. As Britain’s global influence declined, and America’s political, economic and cultural power expanded further, Graham became the key figure in American Christian internationalism. In an age of Cold War anxiety, his evangelistic message was widely seen as a Western spiritual bulwark to communism. Later, in 1974, Graham had a leading role in the organisation of the Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland. As various scholars have noted, this was to have an important impact, as majority world evangelicals began to exercise influence on the west, challenging narrower notions of Christian mission.

Graham’s evangelistic career brought together revivalism, ecumenism, technology and celebrity. The extensive local preparation for his missions encouraged a dynamic of ecumenical cooperation, and later his inclusion of Roman Catholics drew criticism from some evangelicals. He innovated in the use of media. From 1951 he pioneered the use of evangelistic movies (and I very clearly remember being taken to one in the late 1980s), and in 1954 his preaching in London was transmitted to churches and theatres around the country. Graham himself was a widely recognisable religious celebrity, and many secular celebrities were drawn to Graham.

Since the eighteenth century evangelicalism has been highly diverse, sharing, as David Bebbington has argued, four general characteristics of crucicentricism, conversionism, Biblicism and activism. However, in the United States, Graham made an important contribution to the emergence of something like a post-war American ‘new’ evangelical movement. The death of Graham – sometime after his retirement from public ministry – will invite further reflection amongst scholars of American evangelicalism about the present-day coherence of this movement. To what extent is it now a constellation of different constituencies, each with different priorities and agendas? Furthermore, with the death also of the Revd. John Stott, the English Anglican who also enjoyed an international leadership role, perhaps a similar kind of question about evangelicalism will be asked on a global scale. No single evangelical figure now has the same worldwide reputation. If such an individual is to emerge, perhaps they will come from the majority world?

Video | The Legacy of Edward Tylor

Over at the Religious Studies Project last week, Graham Harvey and Paul-Francois Tremlett of the OU took part in a roundtable discussion to mark the centenary of the death of Edward Burnett Tylor, one of the seminal figures in the early academic study of religion. This is also the theme for a new volume edited by Tremlett, Harvey and Liam T. Sutherland, ‘Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture’ (Bloomsbury, 2017) which features contributions from all of the roundtable participants (and several other scholars), which was launched at the BASR annual conference in Chester last September.

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) in many respects has a fixed place in the academic memory of religious studies and cultural anthropology yet acknowledgement of his role is often purely historical, as a key ancestor of little direct relevance to contemporary discussions. This has left us with a limited narrative about the man and his work; a particular received or canonical Tylor defined by his introduction of the concept of animism, his intellectualist approach to religion, his armchair research and staunch social evolutionism. The year of his centenary is an opportunity to begin the task of critically examining the legacy left by Tylor’s work on religion and culture, how much the received Tylor matches his body of work, whether other Tylors can be extracted from these texts which undermine such a limited perspective on a long and eventful career and whether contemporary scholars can find anything of ongoing relevance in the work of such a historically distant figure.

Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism, monotheism and the definition of religion as well as his relevance to the cognitive sciences of religion and the degree to which Tylor can be classed as an ethnographer and more. This roundtable includes contributions from Dr Miguel Astor-Aguilera of Arizona State University, Dr Jonathan Jong of Coventry University’s Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, James L. Cox Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, Liam T. Sutherland – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Paul Tremlett at the Open University.

A very ‘Christmassy’ research project!

By Lucinda Murphy, PhD researcher at Durham University

Well, here we find ourselves again in the depths of January; a new year well under way, and the realities of ‘the everyday’ forced back upon us. It feels somehow hard to imagine that, just a month ago, we were all immersed in an utterly different world. It is, as Shakespeare’s Caliban would have it, a world “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs”; a world in which realities are suspended, if not strangely magnified. It’s a world in which time stands still, dreams are indulged and escapist utopias entertained. It’s a world in which no expense is spared; a world of intensity in which expectations press, and emotions run high; a world in which everything seems to have that extra little bit of sparkle; a world which feels just a little bit ‘Christmassy’.

This annual shift into the world of ‘Christmas’ is of course second nature to most of us. Some dread it, some have fun laughing or even complaining about it, whilst others just seem to naively or feignedly ‘wish it could be Christmas every day’. Whichever angle of the spectrum you personally fit into; it seems clear that Christmas is a cultural event, and we might even say, phenomenon which can’t simply be ignored. Quite the contrary; the whole world seems to close down for it. In the UK, as in many other parts of the world during December, it’s pretty much inescapable. It is plastered across billboards, shop fronts and TV adverts; reinforced and cultivated by institutions of industry, public service and leisure; and physically adorned over and around both public and private spaces.

The very hint of even the word ‘Christmas’ conjures up a rich thought-world of symbol and meaning. Father Christmas; mince pies; snowy scenes; peace and goodwill; Christmas crackers; nativity plays; robins; carols; Quality Street; Christmas trees; candlelit churches. Quite clearly, the cultural symbolic resources for the weaving of such ‘webs of significance’ abound (Geertz, 1973). However, as Chris Deacy has recently shown in his 2016 book Christmas as Religion, these various weaves are neither distinctively personal or cultural, nor distinctively religious or secular. At Christmas, perhaps more than at any other time of year, many seem able, or at least willing, to balance multiple identity commitments, multiple emotions, and also multiple parts of their lives into one syncretic community spirited sparkly mixing bowl. And all the while, the perennial search for ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ hovers somewhere in the midst, casting hints of seeming authenticity into a festival which many fear often appears to be losing its ‘magic’ to empty commercialism and the outrageously ‘naff’.

What could be a more fertile window for the exploration of meaning making in Britain today; and more specifically into the complexities of ever-blurring religious and cultural identities? And yet, when I tell people I’m studying for a PhD on ‘Christmas’, I am met more often than not with astonished looks of incredulity. It’s often seen as too frivolous, too ‘fun’ to study (God help academia!). It seems as if this particular cultural world is perhaps a little too close, too special, for many of us to step outside. But it is of course exactly this intimacy that I believe is so worthy of study, and which I have been striving to capture in my ‘Christmassy’ fieldwork over the past few months. What is it exactly about this utopian dream-like world of stockings, magic dust, innocence, truth and fun that seems so personal; and perhaps more pertinently, how does it any of it relate to our ‘everyday’ January lives?

If you think you might be interested in pursuing some of these questions, do join my research assistant @MyElfGelf and I in our Christmassy musings by logging your own Christmas story as part of our online questionnaire, or by following our Festive Log Research adventures at or on Twitter or Facebook using #TheFestiveLog.

Student Sets Up Print Your Own Custom Headscarf

Stefanie Mros, a former student on our course “Why is religion controversial? (A332)” got in touch recently:

That was one of the most interesting courses during my history degree, and lots of these topics we discussed still accompany me in my every day life. One of the most impressive ones was the discussion around headscarves, that it’s not only a cliché that women are forced into, but that it means protection for them, or a way for them to express themselves in conjunction with their religious beliefs. It opened my eyes and I’m thankful for that.

Stefanie works in marketing for, a custom printing company. Inspired by the discussion in A332, she set up a way for women to print their own custom headscarves with their own designs. You can read all about it at the company’s blog, here.

cultural beliefs don’t have to get in the way of having some wardrobe fun, as you can design your own headscarves using unique prints. This is the ultimate compromise between faith and fashion.



Steven Quilley | Environmentalism on the Margins: Exploring Possibilities for Alternative Modernity

Last year, Steven Quilley of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, joined us to talk about “Environmentalism at the Margins: Exploring existing possibilities for an alternative modernity”. There’s a lot of fascinating ideas about how society is organised, where the world is headed and where it might go instead. Here’s the video – enjoy!

Understood as a complex adaptive system and through the lens of Holling’s Panarchy heuristic, modern industrial capitalism is a ‘deep basin of attraction’. The global consumer society has proved itself to be a profoundly resilient system – resilient, but nevertheless biophysically limited.  As the metabolism of global civilization begins to breach significant thresholds and transgress ‘planetary boundaries’ humanity is approaching social-ecological ‘tipping points’.  Experiencing the concatenating effects of collapsing economies, degraded ecosystems, social crisis, political chaos, communal violence and war, failed and failing states are tracing the outlines of an undesirable basin of attraction defined by collapse. The challenge facing humanity amounts to a rather simple wicked dilemma: is it possible to reconcile technological and socio-political modernity (and all the requisite flows of materials, energy and information) with biosphere integrity and sustainable global life support systems. In this paper, we argue that the alternative modernity defined by this wicked problem should be envisaged as a ‘third basin of attraction’ i.e. the often-vaunted political economy of the ‘third way’ construed through the language of systems theory. In this paper, we explore the outlines of such an ‘attractor’ in terms of political economy, technological prerequisites and problems of culture/ontology. We explore some of the prefigurative possibilities evoked by various ‘environmentalisms at the margins’ i.e. counter-cultural lifestyles, intentional communities, disruptive technologies and practices, and alternative social commitments. These are building niches in diverse settings that could begin to contour space for a new kind of modernity, one that could enable socially and technologically complex human societies to thrive without compromising long-term ecological integrity.  Specifically, we investigate how community-based health systems, micro-fabrication and Maker culture, and new religious movements at the periphery of the environmental movement may contribute to a developing ‘third basin of attraction’ – an alternative to the primary basin of attraction of consumer capitalism and the all too near second basin of societal collapse.

Conference schedule and booking details

The page for our 2018 conference has been updated with a full schedule, including details of the panels, keynotes and timetables. you can also download a pdf here.

We are now accepting online booking, via Eventbright: Please email if you require a different form of payment.

Ticket price for the full 3 days: £255 (including B&B and evening meals). Day rates for Tuesday: £90 (not including an evening meal) / £110 (including meal).

From Ayurveda to biomedicine: understanding the human body | Reblogged from The Conversation

File 20171117 7557 1a2ltpu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

Suzanne Newcombe, The Open University

What is a human body? This may seem a facetious question, but the answer will be very different according to which medical tradition you consult. Take Ayurveda, a traditional system of medical knowledge from India which has enjoyed a renaissance of popularity in the West since the 1980s – and is the subject of a new exhibition at London’s Wellcome Collection.

Walking round the show, one is encouraged to explore different ways of understanding and visualising the human body. The Ayurvedic body differs significantly from that of European biomedicine, which is based on dissection. The Ayurvedic body is a body of systems. It is conceptualised as being composed of five constituent parts (mahābūta), seven body substances (dhātu) and three regulating qualities (doṣa). According to Ayurvedic theory, by attending to imbalances between these principles in a body, health might be promoted and illness avoided. The Ayurvedic concepts of the doṣasvata, pitta and kapha can be seen in the West today promoting teas, soaps and massages.

Parallels between the yogic and the medical/anatomical view of the body.
Wellcome Collection, Svami Hamsasvarupa, Sanskrit MS 391., CC BY

But of course, there are many other different conceptions of the human body. There is the tantric understanding, often conflated with that of Ayurveda. Tantra focuses on the concept of energy channels (nāḍīs) which have particular centres of concentration along a line in the centre of the body (chakras). The traditional Chinese model, on the other hand, emphasises the dynamic principles of ying and yang as being paramount for ensuring health. Meanwhile, indigenous healing in many traditional cultures identifies problems between the individual and the greater social and metaphysical context as the cause of illness.

Competing medical systems

So what, then, has determined the dominance of one medical system of thought over another? The answer is far more complex than the “correct” or “most accurate” one.

This complexity is epitomised by the central piece of the exhibition, one of very few illustrations of the classical Ayurvedic systemic descriptions of the human body. This 16th-century drawing, as Dominik Wujastyk’s research has shown, was probably produced at the request of a rich, Nepalese patron by a scholar-physician, a scribe and a painter, none of whom were fluent with the original Sanskrit source. The Nepalese artist was clearly influenced by Tibetan medical illustrations.

We don’t know how this image was originally used or how influential it was, but its creation was dependent upon patronage and intercultural exchange. It was out of this mix of cultures, then, that came one of the most iconic visual presentations of the “Indian” Ayurvedic body.

The Ayurvedic Man.
Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Economic and political powers are strong influences on the shape and popularity of Indian concepts of the body today. Yoga is currently the most widespread Indian approach to promoting the health of the body. It is flourishing globally. Millions attest that yoga makes them feel better and Ayurvedic concepts are often presented as integral to yoga practices.

But it is not well known that the contemporary global interest in Ayurveda and yoga is partially a result of colonial mismanagement of India. This point is creatively illustrated in the Wellcome’s new show through an interactive commission by the artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar. Millions of lives were lost throughout the colonial period due to forcible redistribution of food and other resources away from local Indian populations, to serve what were considered to be the greater needs of the British Empire.

As I have argued elsewhere, reactions to the tragic deaths of millions of Indians transformed yoga. Swami Vivekananda was inspired by the effects of famine and plague to redefine Karma Yoga as a social-service mission. Many leaders of the Indian independence movement, including Mahatmas Gandhi and Mohan Malaviya, promoted Indian approaches to medicine and health.

And so the establishment of the modern Indian nation was closely linked with the health of millions of individual Indian bodies through “Indian” systems of healing. This continues today as the prime minister Narendra Modi demonstrates through his association with Indian’s popular “yoga-televangelist” Swami Ramdev and the elevation of traditional medicine to that of an independent government department.

The promotion and preservation of Indian medicinal knowledge is laudable. But it is important not to oversimplify complex and sophisticated descriptions rooted in different worldviews. Economic imperatives often flatten traditions into marketable exports – and intercultural exchanges both enrich and confuse our models of understanding.

19th century painting depicting a yogic posture.
Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

Many understandings

So should there be one answer, one dominant understanding of the body? I’m currently part of a team researching the overlaps between yoga, Ayurvedic medicine and Indian longevity practices (rasāyana) over the past 1000 years. Our research emphasises a plurality of understandings through time. Both yoga and Ayurveda are characterised by a diversity of practices, as well as by internal conceptual coherency. Millennia of intercultural exchange has created problems for asserting national ownership of traditional medical knowledge.

A Western conception of the body: Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Wikimedia Commons

All medical systems have shared interests in promoting human health and longevity. But it is important to understand the differences as well as the similarities. As early as 1923, Indian commentators were expressing concern about the potential biomedical “mining” of traditional remedies for single active ingredients. One commentator in the Usman Report, a pan-Indian survey of over 200 indigenous medical practitioners, asks: “Does this amount to quackery” by biomedical physicians?

Today, our mental image of our bodies is largely picture built up from dissection and, more recently, x-rays and various other scans. Yet in practice, we understand our bodies as a changing system. We monitor our energy levels. We adjust how we feel with food, drink, sleep, exercise and drugs. The Ayurvedic, system-oriented body, then, is perhaps not that far from most people’s daily experience. So how might we better visualise our bodies based on our lived, somatic understandings?

The ConversationAyurveda is a rich and complex tradition that has always encompassed influences from a variety of cultures as well as retaining very specific, local applications. Ayurveda cannot be reduced to a simple definition, marketing slogan or quantifiable national export. The Wellcome’s new show explores these complicated relationships and raises important questions. If we are not to become “quacks” ourselves, we must continue to resist reductions of the human body into a single visual model.

Suzanne Newcombe, Lecturer in Religious Studies, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.